Formal Biology and Compositional Biology as Two Kinds of Biological Theorizing

Dissertation, Indiana University, HPS (2003)
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Abstract
There are two fundamentally distinct kinds of biological theorizing. "Formal biology" focuses on the relations, captured in formal laws, among mathematically abstracted properties of abstract objects. Population genetics and theoretical mathematical ecology, which are cases of formal biology, thus share methods and goals with theoretical physics. "Compositional biology," on the other hand, is concerned with articulating the concrete structure, mechanisms, and function, through developmental and evolutionary time, of material parts and wholes. Molecular genetics, biochemistry, developmental biology, and physiology, which are examples of compositional biology, are in serious need of philosophical attention. For example, the very concept of a "part" is understudied in both philosophy of biology and philosophy of science. ;My dissertation is an attempt to clarify the distinction between formal biology and compositional biology and, in so doing, provide a clear philosophical analysis, with case studies, of compositional biology. Given the social, economic, and medical importance of compositional biology, understanding it is urgent. For my investigation, I draw on the philosophical fields of metaphysics and epistemology, as well as philosophy of biology and philosophy of science. I suggest new ways of thinking about some classic philosophy of science issues, such as modeling, laws of nature, abstraction, explanation, and confirmation. I hint at the relevance of my study of two kinds of biological theorizing to debates concerning the disunity of science
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